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Christianity and the Nature of Science: A Philosophical Investigation

by J.P. Moreland

Baker Book House (1989), 263 pages, $14.95

Reviewed by Doug Jones


The myth that science is the model of truth and rationality still grips the mind of much of our popular and scientific culture. Even though philosophers of science over the past few decades have gutted many of the claims of this scientific imperialism, many thinkers, knee-jerk agnostics, and even judges persist in the grip of this notion.

J.P. Moreland's latest work, Christianity and the Nature of Science, aims to refute scientific imperialism argument by argument. To this aim, Moreland defends three theses: (1) that there is no definition of science or single scientific method that we may use to demarcate science from non-science; (2) that certain epistemological limits (e.g. the presuppositions of science) dethrone science from an imperialistic stance over philosophy and theology; and (3) that attempts to integrate science and theology (especially conflicts) should not automatically assume scientific realism, the view that successful scientific theories are true or approximately true models of the world.

The particular challenge which motivates most, if not all, of Moreland's discussion is the question concerning the status of Scientific Creationism. The chapter criticizing the naive definition of science used by Judge Overton in the famous 1981 Arkansas creationism trial is worth the price of the book itself.

Though, as we will see, serious drawbacks arise in this book, persons interested in these important topics should not miss Moreland's valuable contribution. No other Christian text is as current or has the relative depth as this text.

>From the very beginning of the work, Moreland, to his credit, strongly opposes dichotomized Christian thinking, which is so common to believers struggling as undergraduates in non-Christian colleges. Also to his credit, Moreland opposes the Christian trend toward fideism and the lack of an objective and critically reasoned understanding of the Christian perspective. The most notable aspect of any of Moreland's chapters is that they are chock-full of arguments. This feature is a breath of fresh air. The text is also full of helpful footnotes, and and an extensive select bibliography.

On the negative side, the text loses much of its use as a resource work because it has no index. This omission should be a criminal offense for a text of this sort. Moreover, the author allowed several unacknowledged redundancies to remain. We find redundant and space consuming discussions of the Correspondence Theory of Truth, the Raven Paradox, Chisholm's distinction of epistemic right, the bizarre Kekule discovery, and an anecdote about a psychologist's confusion about mature adulthood. Such unacknowledged redundancies leave the impression of a hurried, unchecked work.

On a bizarre point, in Moreland's trendy effort against sexist language in philosophical examples, we see him refer at times to "Nature herself." This usage is doubly strange for such an avowed opponent of pantheism.

One very significant drawback is the conflict between the level of the discussion and the intended readers. Moreland suggests that the readers may be students or even members of an informal church study group, but the discussion often introduces terms and questions without the slightest bit of background discussion.

On a more technical note, Moreland breezes over some areas that are central to his overall argument. The discussion of the nature of scientific theories is more of a list than a discussion, and even at that it fails to mention some of the general categories which students will encounter (Received, Semantic, and Historicist).

Similarly, Moreland's discussion of the problem of induction does not mention some of the more prominent "solutions." The author's own solution to the problem leaves so many basic questions unanswered that it would not be of any help to a struggling undergraduate. The same sort of problem is found in the discussion of Goodman's Grue paradox. This discussion is placed in a chapter which is supposed to inform the reader of the basic issues, yet Moreland attempts to abbreviate Goodman's already sticky definitions by conflating them.

Moreland's introduction of Realism and Antirealism might also confuse the inquiring student by its failure to note an equally, if not more, dominant discussion using the same terms. The Realism and Antirealism debate in the philosophy of language, involving Dummett, Devitt, etc., and focusing on whether statements have realist or verificationist truth conditions is clearly distinct from the question of unobservable entities in the dispute over scientific realism. Though all of the above points, in and of themselves, are minor, they do show that the text has a pattern of assuming too much knowledge on the intended reader.

Regardless of all of the above, the most serious drawback to Moreland's work is its lack of a Biblically founded antithesis between Christian and non-Christian thought. Moreland comes close at points but ultimately fails to offer a powerful critique of a non-Christian understanding of science because he grants that the unbeliever can offer a justified account of science. The antithetical or Van Tilian approach would demonstrate the complete inability of the unbeliever to successfully carry out such a task given the worldview in question.

An example of Moreland's failure is found in the chapter, "The Limits of Science." Moreland examines many of the presuppositions on which science depends for rational justification. Yet instead of demonstrating how the non-Christian perspective destroys such foundations and thus destroys science, Moreland merely uses this information to show that science requires philosophy for its foundations. According to Moreland, this is not even a distinctively Biblical philosophy, but philosophy in general.

This lack of epistemological antithesis also allows Moreland to offer a very weak argument to demonstrate the "scientific" nature of theology. At the end of the chapter "Scientific Methodology," Moreland, follows Patrick Sherry in arguing that sanctification can serve as a proof for God's existence, since sanctification, like an electron, receives meaning from a conceptual framework, ties together various phenomena, admits predictions, can be falsified, and is public.

This argument may have merit within the Christian worldview, but this cannot serve as a proof for unbelievers since they must reject our conceptual framework. They will also reject that "the presence of saintliness" is "something visible and recognizable to everyone." The unbeliever will reject any non-humanistic interpretation of such facts. Moreland fails to see the radical dichotomy between the Christian and non-Christian interpretation of objective factuality.

A final example of this sort of thinking is Moreland's attempt to resolve the tensions between scientific realism and Scripture by suggesting that in some cases we may adopt an Antirealist understanding of science to resolve the tension. Though Moreland's general discussion of this point is helpful, he balks in a footnote over the question of whether this assumption regarding the truth of the Bible is question-begging.

Moreland claims that a response to this question depends upon one's approach to apologetics:

If one is a fideist or a presuppositionalist (roughly the view that rational argumentation and evidence cannot be offered as epistemic support for Christian theism from some neutral starting point), then one may say that begging the question is not a problem...If one is an evidentialist as I am, then one can suspend judgment about the theological or biblical component of the apparent conflict by viewing it as a rationally justified conceptual problem for the scientific theory in question (p.205).
This sort of confusion prohibits Moreland from offering a powerful critique of non-Christian thought. First, Moreland confuses, along with the Ligonier group, presuppositionalism with fideism. Though this may be true of Gordon Clark's Dogmatic Fideism, this is simply false regarding a presuppositionalism of the Van Tilian or antithetical persuasion. The latter rejects fideism and offers objective, rational grounds for the Biblical view of reality. In fact, Moreland's position turns out to be a form of fideism itself, since it merely offers Christianity as an inference to the best explanation.[1]

Secondly, Moreland's view forces him into thinking in a dichotomized manner himself; yet this is the very view he originally sought to reject. In the above quote, he states that he is not begging-the-question because in a dispute over a tension between science and Scripture, he "suspends judgment" about God's word.

As a Christian, Moreland is called to trust God's word on pain of humiliation -- "Let God be true though every man a liar" (Rom. 3:4); God alone is the foundation of knowledge (Prov. 1:7), and Christ alone is the Truth who holds all the treasures of knowledge (Jn. 14:6; Col. 2:3). Yet, as an evidentialist Moreland is forced to deny all this and think as an unbeliever -- "suspend judgment" on the truth of God's word and Christ.

This dichotomy is absurd. But it is not a minor point. This unwillingness to note the radical antithesis between believer and unbeliever pervades Moreland's work. This lack of antithesis severely weakens his critique of non-Christian thought.

We should heed Moreland's concluding call to enter the fields he discusses and use a sound, objective form of argumentation, but we must do so with the best weapons. Moreland's approach fails to do this.

Footnotes

[1] Moreland, J.P., Scaling the Secular City (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1987)

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